Discount airfares aren't as cheap as you think

CHICAGO -- If those cut-rate airfares sound too good to be true, it's because they often are. Doing the math reveals that some deals may end up costing you more than if you planned ahead and purchased a regular airfare.

CHICAGO -- If those cut-rate airfares sound too good to be true, it's because they often are. Doing the math reveals that some deals may end up costing you more than if you planned ahead and purchased a regular airfare.

"A lot of these wild-and-crazy fares are gimmicks," said Tom Parsons, chief executive of "If you want the cheap stuff, you're going to get the weakest dates they have available and at the last minute."

Consider JetBlue's $10 one-day, online-only deal on May 10, a promotion in celebration of its 10-year anniversary. The bargain-basement deal on one-way flights was only for leftover seats on certain routes and only for the following Tuesday and Wednesday -- what amounted to a sleepover in another city.

The flight cost more than $10 because the fare didn't include fees, surcharges and taxes, which doubled the price. Still, at $20, a flight from Washington Dulles to Long Beach, Calif., or Nantucket, Mass., to New York was a remarkable bargain by most standards.

But what if you could get the ticket out but you couldn't, or didn't want to, get a ticket home the next day? If you were flying from New York to Los Angeles on a round-trip flight sans the deal, the cost would be about $298, including taxes and fees, if planned two weeks ahead, according to Parsons.


But to get a one-way ticket back last weekend, the cheapest return flight to New York from L.A. on JetBlue, without a seven-day advance purchase, came in at $396. That $10 ticket just swelled to $416, with taxes and fees, a huge premium to get that special "deal."

Luckily for most JetBlue customers who jumped on the promotion, that wasn't the case, according to Sasha Barker, revenue manager for the carrier. "A very high percentage of people who bought an outbound ticket on Tuesday did return on Wednesday," he said.

JetBlue called its deep discount a "give back" to customers who have flown during its first decade in the air, but admits that it was aimed, successfully, at bringing in new customers as well.

"We can't do that and stay in business," Barker said. "And I don't think a two-day sale will move the needle 1/8on top-line sales or market share3/8 but we achieved our goal and that was to get people talking and thinking about JetBlue when they travel."

The lesson here: Gimmicks are meant to lure in travelers, but consumers must do the math before they pounce on what appear to be rock-bottom fares.

Spirit Airlines, among the lowest-cost carriers but with the most add-on fees, has offered flights for as little as one cent. But for most deals, you must be a member of its $9 Club, which costs $40 to join. And you must be willing to pay as much as $45 to carry on a bag along with the surcharge for fuel, and taxes and fees. If you want to check a bag, be prepared to pay even more.

So a one-cent flight from Detroit to Las Vegas, with one carry-on bag, in reality ends up costing $118 one way and $236 round trip. And it will cost even more if you want a seat assignment or book your flight online.

"Free doesn't exist in the airline industry. Anytime you see a sale fare published, it's going to be the base fare and you can always expect to pay something on top of that," said Anne Banas, executive editor of


"If you see a deal out there, you almost have to act on it within hours if you want it," said Parsons of But first, "figure out how much it's really going to cost you."

Summer is peak travel time so don't expect to see deep discounts on flights over heavy vacation periods like the July 4th weekend. You may still find some cheap deals for May travel, as well as for September, October and early December.

"Definitely there will be deals out there for the summer, but there will not be any crazy $10 deals," Barker said.

There's a method to this madness of price slashing. Most major airlines will offer a rock-bottom deal on Tuesday, often in the afternoon. The other major carriers will choose to match or up the ante with a better deal either later in the day or Wednesday.

"The airlines try to duke each other out," Banas said. "They want to keep their prices competitive."

For the best prices, plan to take a midweek trip. Weekend flights, particularly Fridays and Sundays, are packed with passengers who are more willing to pay full fares.

Geography matters, too. Popular routes, such as the Boston to Washington hop, will be more competitive than, say, Chicago to Savannah, Ga.

And keep this in mind: When a discount carrier adds new routes, it's like a game of dominos. "It's called the Southwest effect," Banas said. "Whenever Southwest enters a market, other airlines tend to lower their prices as well to compete on those routes." The same is true with JetBlue.


Southwest already is advertising a $99 one-way price between Phoenix and Minneapolis when its new service starts Aug. 15. It's also adding a daily nonstop between Phoenix and Boston that hasn't been priced yet.

JetBlue is launching service into Washington's Reagan National Airport on Nov. 1 with seven daily, nonstop flights to Boston. It was offering one-way fares as low as $39 between D.C. and Boston, and bragged that everyday low fares on that route would be as much as 73 percent lower on JetBlue. It's also starting service to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

US Airways recently announced new nonstop flights to Rome from its Charlotte, N.C., hub but didn't couple that with discounts.

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